As Israel completed its historic withdrawal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip last week, the streets of Palestinian Gaza were already filling up with neon green banners from the Islamist group Hamas, declaring: gaza is the beginning. Both Israel and Washington consider Hamas a terrorist group, in large part because of its endorsement of suicide bombings.
But the organization's network of social services makes it popular among Palestinians, and President Mahmoud Abbas believes that getting Hamas involved in the political process may moderate the militants--even though the group will likely pose a stiff challenge to his own Fatah party in January's legislative polls. NEWSWEEK's Kevin Peraino spoke with Hamas cofounder Mahmoud Zahar in Gaza City last week. Excerpts:
PERAINO: Some Israeli officials warn that after the withdrawal, Gaza will become "Hamastan."
ZAHAR: It should be Hamastan. Why not? We are not corrupt. We are serving the poorer classes. We are defending our land. It should be Hamastan!
What went through your mind as you watched the television images of the withdrawal?
It's a play. It's nothing. Everybody thinks it's nonsense. The Israeli media says it's nonsense. We are happy. Not because of their weeping. We are happy because they are leaving. The real weeping was among our people, who lost their people, who lost their houses, who lost their trees. This is the real weeping.
If somebody like Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi wanted to come to Gaza, and it were up to you, would you let him?
He will not come. We are not in need of Zarqawi, Al Qaeda or others. We have our own style.
What about other foreign jihadists now fighting Americans in Iraq? Would you welcome them?
If [a foreign fighter] will be here, he will not be a member of Hamas. If he came, and he ran an operation against Israel, he will be outside Hamas.
But it would be OK for him to be here? Would you welcome him as a hero for fighting Americans in Iraq?
How are you going to prevent him from coming here? It's a theoretical question. We are welcoming anybody who will make an end for the occupation of Iraq. Do you believe this American occupation is a noble phenomenon? It's a dirty thing.
Some Western officials have talked about President George W. Bush's "theory of redemption"--the belief that engaging groups like Hamas could moderate them. Do you get the sense that the United States is trying to engage you?
[Laughs] It's not the United States. It's the whole European [community]. But containment will not succeed with Hamas. I don't trust the term "moderate." We are already moderate. But if people believe we will be moderate in the Western style, or a pro-Israeli style--that's not moderate. That's corruption.
Some Hamas officials insist they don't want to win a majority of seats in Parliament--that Hamas would prefer to avoid the responsibility of actually governing.
People are going to choose us not to be a decoration, a radical decoration in the Parliament. We will be the servant of the Palestinian people. That cannot be achieved if we are a minority. But if we are a minority, I think we will be a very strong minority.
How long do you think this current truce will last?
Until the end of 2005.
Does Hamas still stand by the tactic of suicide bombing?
We were forced to do so [in the past]. When we reached the conclusion that nothing could be achieved by peaceful [means], we were forced to do [it]. Believe me, if it is not allowed in Islam, and if your goal cannot be achieved as an open goal, [then] it's justified. It is not allowed in Islam to drink alcohol. But if you are forced to do it, you have to do it.
Could you ever see Hamas involved in a peace plan that would allow two states side by side, Israel and Palestine?
Nobody on the Israeli side, from the extreme right to the extreme left, will withdraw from Jerusalem. At the same time, believe me, nobody on the Pales-tinian side, in the Arab and Muslim world, will accept keeping Jerusalem under occupation. [The Palestinians] lost everything [after Oslo]. We are not the PLO. We are not going to repeat a failed [process].
A lot of people in the international community will now say: "Israel pulled out of Gaza. Everybody saw the sacrifices they made." What sacrifices will Hamas make for the peace process?
[Laughs] Israel occupied our land, killed our people. And now they are sacrificing? It's a funny thing. It's a funny thing.